Pacific Drive Review

A surreal road trip through sci-fi hell

A driving survival game? It may not be entirely clear from the start what exactly that means. Certainly, other games like Days Gone and Subnautica have incorporated vehicle mechanics into the survival recipe, and others like Raft and Forever Skies have taken it a step further, making the player’s vehicle their mobile base as well. Developer Ironwood Studios, however, has made a bold statement by making these mechanics the core of their new title: Pacific Drive.

So what makes Pacific Drive a “driving survival game?” Is it a new spin on the genre that handles itself well? Is the story and world worth your valuable time and money? Are the mechanics exciting and well-integrated, or are the bells and whistles a frustrating mess? Is this a game that will appeal to the survival game community, or is it more of a niche simulator? We’ll be covering all of this and much more in this review.

Story and concept

An in-game title card

Pacific Drive is set in a fictional version of a national park in the American Northwest called the Olympic Peninsula. Here, rumors of futuristic and utopian technological advancements have grown like weeds, right alongside mysterious disappearances, strange phenomena, and sudden evacuations. Eventually, something went wrong, and a shady government organization known as ARDA (the same one responsible for research there) evacuated the entire peninsula and constructed a set of three concentric 300-meter walls to establish the Olympic Exclusion Zone.

Decades later, you arrive. The reason you approach the exclusion zone isn’t entirely clear, but it’s fair to assume you were delivering something to one of the gates before a mysterious force disassembles your car and whisks you away inside the zone. Desperate to escape, you team up with an unlikely ally, a beat-up old station wagon sitting in a shed but mysteriously functional.

That, and a few remaining holdouts. These holdouts are former researchers and scientists from ARDA, and inform you that your new ride is a strange artifact called a “Remnant.”

The player's delivery orders

If you think that’s a lot to take in, just wait til you’re frantically speeding your way through the zone while detailed story exposition is happening over the radio. The cast of characters is relatively small, and the player lacks a transmitter, so they can’t respond to any communications from their allies and never speak. That said, the characters are surprisingly endearing for how simple they are.

The two researchers, Tobias and Francis, are goofy nerds who are all too excited to see the anomalies plaguing the zone up close. The third character, Ophelia (or Oppy), is the genius behind LIM technology (the futuristic tech developed in the Olympic Zone). She is much more coarse and serious, but her softer side shows when it comes to her many inventions.

The player's first encounter with the remnant

The car itself also seems to be a character, as Remnants bond themselves to a person and slowly drive their new owner mad until they run off into the zone with it. Each character has their own motivations, but their intentions and whether you are a savior or guinea pig to them is yet to be seen.

It’s hard to make detailed descriptions of the worldbuilding taking place inside this title. Frankly, though, we love it. This is a title that definitely has its darker side, with the zone and LIM tech destroying people’s lives and adapting to hunt them down. On the other hand, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Not only is your car probably alive, but there is a friendly dumpster out back that spits out gifts for you when you return to the garage.

A log entry about an anomaly

Oftentimes, players will ignore journal entries and other lore collectibles in survival games because they simply aren’t as interesting as the gameplay, but we found ourselves reading through the detailed and hilarious accounts of the times when a researcher first encountered the anomaly we just escaped from.

This is a title where every description has a joke, a pertinent clue, or even a bit to add to the backstory of a character or the zone at large. This includes everything from random podcasts, to strange radio broadcasts, to anomaly logs, and even the description for a can of paint. When Ironwood made this game, they had a story to tell and a world they wanted to show you, and it’s definitely worth the time to investigate.

Graphics

Watching the sunrise through the trees

It’s almost expected in the world of modern graphics that games will be visually attractive, but Pacific Drive brings something unique to the table in terms of graphics. Though also somewhat realistic, the graphics have a stylish comic-book aspect. Games like Firewatch or The Long Dark are good examples but also too unique on their own to meet it 1:1. The overall world and design of the anomalies and futuristic technology remind us heavily of the kitchen sink sci-fi of Simon Stålenhag, one of my personal favorite science fiction artists.

The environments in this game are beautifully atmospheric. We could leave it there, but we want to say more. Everything is highly detailed and gloriously rendered with a gorgeous mix of colors and lighting effects. Dark and mysterious forests, fields of glowing flowers, foggy swamps, and even the sky are all worth stepping out of your car to stare at for a moment before you return to running for your life. Sometimes, we almost wished the action would let up so we could stop and gawk for a moment.

A gateway opening in the distance

As stunning as the Olympic Peninsula is, you’ll never see the same vista twice. The entire landscape can change drastically depending on the time of day and the weather. Shady forests become dark and spooky at night, while steamy marshes become havens for bioluminescent fungi once the sun sets. The wind will cause the trees to sway, the rain will make things slick and shiny, and sudden flashes of lighting will illuminate the dark road ahead. Explorers and fans of sightseeing should absolutely consider this game.

Speaking of lighting and effects, the artistic prowess behind the design team at Ironwood is apparent. Sci-fi visual media lives and dies on its special effects and Pacific Drive didn’t shy away from the challenge. The eerie glow of wandering anomalies, the sparkling sickly dust of radiation, and even the towering beams of light that mark the player’s exit from a level all directly impact the environment. The combination of lighting, quality graphics, and visual effects makes for a highly immersive experience.

Observing an Abductor anomaly up close

Once or twice we did experience some pretty hefty graphical bugs, though. On one occasion, a glitch occurred that caused a blinding tunnel effect any time we looked toward a light source, including our own headlights, which ultimately led to our crashing and rolling the car. This bug did disappear after leaving the level, but players should be aware of their presence, regardless of how rare they may be.

The anomalies you’ll be escaping from are all very well-designed and clearly inspired by titles like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. While some of these enemies are just pretty clouds of deadly stink spores or electric energy, many others are very original, including a refreshing variety of models that all have tons of personality and add another layer of depth to the zone.

Observing strange phenomena from inside a watchtower

Overall, Pacific Drive is one hell of a looker.

Sound and atmosphere

Exploring the Zone during a storm

When you’re stuck in the car for hours on a real road trip, the radio can be the saving grace that keeps you from insanity. Pacific Drive has its own radio system, both in your car and in the jukebox in the garage. Though there aren’t distinct stations, there is a nice variety of killer songs to enjoy as you drive and work.

The music includes a mix of everybody’s favorite road trip genres: a little oldie, soft rock, dark country/folk, synth wave, and moody alternative tracks. The soundtrack of this game is one we have been waiting for the release of for a while (even if just to listen to Ghost on the Road again), and we think this is one players will be listening to outside the game for sure.

Scavenging wrecks by moonlight

For a game with a silent protagonist, Pacific Drive goes against the trope by sporting some excellent voice acting. Additionally, the sound design for this title is top-notch, with palettes of sound effects for driving or walking through each different terrain type. All of the sound effects for the car are spot-on and highly immersive, and the whirrs and bangs when ripping parts off and bolting them on are very satisfying. Couple that with the grinding and smashing sounds of using scrappers or impact hammers, and you’ve got yourself a perfect mix when it comes to survival game expectations.

Driving through a checkpoint in the rain

We wouldn’t say that this title is quite what a horror game enthusiast is after, but wandering around the environment can certainly be spooky. Random ambient sounds from the underbrush and the hum of nearby anomalies were enough to put us on edge. In terms of the general atmosphere and ambiance, Pacific Drive is a mix of dark, creepy, goofy, and pensive. The sounds of nearby underbrush moving around you as you try to sneak past a crowd of Tourists or the rain on the roof and wind whipping through the trees as you speed down the broken road really sits you behind the wheel.

Gameplay

The car status panel in the garage

So, what is a driving survival game? We’d start by saying it’s a single-player mix between a racing game, a mechanic simulator, and a scavenging survival title. While most survival games have players babysitting meters for their character, Pacific Drive only gives the player a health bar. Your car, however, has many needs, and you’ll need to keep the gas tank full, the battery charged, and your parts in decent condition. Yes, each part of your vehicle can be damaged, destroyed, and replaced.

Additionally, these parts can develop malice over time or when exposed to certain conditions. Tires can grow bald or blow out, panels can become fragile after being repaired too many times, windshields can crack, engines can blow spark plugs, and headlights can be smashed or burned out. Among the player’s tools, they can craft numerous solutions to solve these problems, such as patch kits for broken windshields or flat tires, electrician’s kits for blown spark plugs, or battery jumpers for a dead battery.

Replacing a damaged hood panel

These mechanics are actually quite satisfying to manage, though you’ll need to be prepared to deal with these problems in the field as well as in the garage. Speaking of which, players will be dividing up their time between two main activities: The Garage and Drives.

The garage is the player’s home base. Here, you can store your stuff, plan drives, research new technology to craft, and generally prepare yourself and your car for the next drive. The garage includes the fabricator, which acts as the player’s progression tree. Here, players can spend resources they find in the zone to upgrade the garage and unlock new blueprints for car parts, tools, and more.

Tinkering device menu

The technology tree is surprisingly diverse, though we still wish it was a bit bigger. To unlock a new technology in the tree, not only will the player need special resources found by destabilizing the area they are in, but they will also need to have researched any preliminary tech or required components. Additionally, players will often need to scan a certain anomaly or piece of technology that corresponds to the item, such as lead plating for lead-plated doors or the Spike Puddle anomaly for puncture-proof tires. 

Repairing, upgrading, and outfitting our car at the garage actually ended up being our favorite part of the game. In fact, we were almost disappointed when we returned from a drive and didn’t have any problems to fix. Plus, there is a bevy of different upgrades and parts to play around with, from armored panels to paddle tires to side-mounted turbines and even devices to make your car leap through the air. Additionally, your car may accumulate special conditions over time called “Quirks.”

Scavenging for materials in the zone

Quirks can range from something as simple as “Every time I close the trunk, the horn honks” to more dangerous conditions such as “Every time I hit the brakes the wheel falls off.” In the garage, there is a tinkering machine that incorporates a little minigame to fix these quirks. Essentially, you must guess what is wrong with your car to fix it. This is relatively easy for more serious problems but may take some tinkering to uncover more hidden issues. The combination of all these interesting systems makes taking care of your car a fun and satisfying experience that instills a sense of pride when you finally stand back and admire your suped-up ride.

All of the work in the garage is to prepare the player and their car for Drives. Drives are extraction-style levels where the player can enter the zone to scavenge materials and complete missions. However, the zone is a dangerous place, and keeping your car and yourself in one piece is where the real challenge begins. You’ll need to siphon fuel and scrounge for other materials to keep your car in working order.

Scrapping forgotten wrecks for parts

We were initially concerned the controls would be along the lines of many other first-person games with driving mechanics, but we were pleasantly surprised. The car controls for Pacific Drive are tight and very responsive on both controller and keyboard, though your steering will be affected by things like loose tires, wind, rain, and traction on and off the road.

Each junction the player can visit inside the zone has conditions that will change over time and may make the trip more or less dangerous. Additionally, the layout of most junctions will be procedurally generated, as the zone is constantly in a state of instability. Your objectives inside each junction may change depending on what materials you are looking for or what mission you are doing, but the goal is to either reach the exit to drive to the next junction or to collect enough anchors to open the gateway back to the garage and escape with your loot.

Speeding towards the gateway with the storm close behind

The zone, however, isn’t just going to let you drive off into the giant laser from the sky without a fight. Anomalies of all varieties will get in your way and try to kill you or destroy your car. Admittedly, most of these anomalies are much more dangerous to your car than you, and early on, it’s almost easier to just walk everywhere and let the Bollards judge you silently.

Once you leave the safety of the first areas, though, all bets are off. Eventually, the stability in a junction will fail, and the storm will roll in. This storm will destroy your car and kill you if you are caught in it for too long, and the more anchors you collect, the faster it approaches.

Players will have to move and work fast if they want to survive in the zone’s more dangerous regions, and when the siren goes off and the storm starts rolling in, things get really crazy. These end-of-level chases are exciting and extremely tense. Drive like hell or be erased.

Replay value

Ambushed by Tourist anomalies on the road

If what we’ve described of Pacific Drive has you hooked so far, chances are you’ll be able to sink lots of hours into it. Decking out your car with different armor, wheels, equipment, attachments, abilities, and cosmetics is already a major replay factor. Additionally, though, there are procedurally generated maps and differing anomalies and zone conditions to contend with that can make each drive a very different experience.

On the other hand, Pacific Drive is a single-player experience, so you won’t be racing against your friends. Additionally, this isn’t the kind of game with obvious collectibles or side objectives to track. The repetitive nature of some maps and the lack of building variety may turn some players away from replay as well.

Final thoughts on Pacific Drive

A heavily upgraded car

Though Pacific Drive wears its inspirations on its sleeve, this is an incredibly unique and charming title that just isn’t like anything we’ve played in the past. It won’t be for everyone, though. Those looking for a traditional survival experience or who aren’t fans of driving mechanics should probably steer clear, no pun intended.

To be completely honest, we weren’t expecting to enjoy Pacific Drive nearly as much as we have. This title has a lot of heart, some marvelous personality, and a fantastically surreal world players can get lost in.

Buy Pacific Drive now on Steam.

Aaron Van Dyck's avatar

About Aaron Van Dyck

Aaron Van Dyck is a thriller novelist with a passion for survival games and exploration. He started writing at the age of 13 and has always been drawn to the sense of self-reliance and freedom found in open worlds. An avid urban explorer and RPG enthusiast, he enjoys dungeon crawling and has a particular love for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Far Cry 5, and Cataclysm: DDA. He's also a fan of shooters and action games with immersive stories and unique monsters to encounter.

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